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It's all in the chemistry: Academy researchers work on more precise spice test

March 13, 2014 (Photo Credit: image Credit)
Air Force Academy cadets have a role to play in the service’s war on drugs. They are researching ways to more easily detect through urine tests whether an airman has violated rules by using the synthetic marijuana known as spice.

Last year, Cadet 1st Class Alexa Gingras, now a second lieutenant, devised a way to more quickly prepare urine for drug-testing. Her work shortened the prep time from three to five hours to 10 minutes. Her new method also aimed to be able to detect spice in urine up to eight weeks after ingestion. Her technique is now a standard practice for all Air Force spice drug tests, “saving the Air Force time and money,” Gingras said during a March 2013 interview.

The academy’s spice research continues with Cadet 1st Class Jacob Krimbill and his supervisor, chemistry professor Timm Knoerzer. Their focus is to make tests for spice more precise.

The academy hasn’t had any new spice cases since 33 cadets were investigated in 2011; more than 20 cadets resigned and five were kicked out.

While the overall number of airmen using spice in the last year is not yet available, 46 court-martial convictions and 92 nonjudicial punishments in 2013 involved spice use.

A recent internal Pentagon studyalsofound that about 2.5 percent — or 35,000 service members — probably were smoking the widely available drug.

To help nab users, Krimbill and Knoerzer, along with their newest team member, Cadet 2nd Class David De Los Santos, are working to identify a metabolite — a molecule that forms as spice degrades in the body.

Krimbill, a senior biochemistry student, first began researching spice in the spring of 2013. He also conducted a summer research project at the Air Force Drug Testing Lab at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, where he assisted in devising new protocols to increase the rate at which samples can be tested.

“Alexa’s work was about lowering detection limits, so detecting lower quantities [of spice compounds] for a longer period of time after [ingestion],” Krimbill said in an interview with Air Force Times.

“What we’re trying to do is use the power of synthetic chemistry to identify and synthesize a common metabolite that would be more universally applied in overall spice detection,” Knoerzer said.

“If you think of it like a family tree, at the bottom of a family tree, you have all these individual spice compounds that you can test for, and alternatively, what we’re looking to do is to identify a common metabolite that forms regardless of which one of those particular spice compounds someone might have ingested,” Knoerzer said.

In a process called convergent synthesis, “we build a part of the molecule, another part of the molecule, another ... and at some point we establish the structure that will allow us to combine the structures together, ultimately yielding the overall structure we’re trying to achieve,” Knoerzer said.

The molecular structure then works as the main identifier in testing, Knoerzer said.

“We have the capacity [at the academy] to do this synthetic chemistry that other labs don’t. ... I think that’s part of why the relationship with the group at Lackland works,” Knoerzer said. “This strategy saves the Air Force time because we already have personnel that are capable of doing this type of work.”

Both Knoerzer and Krimbill said they believe this research will enhance through-put, reliability, and may even allow the Air Force and Defense Department to do broader screening.

“It is about efficiency. You can either develop protocols to look for individual compounds, or you can develop a protocol to look for a common degradant — sounds like to me, the more efficient way would be to look for a common degradant,” Knoerzer said.

The team hopes to submit a manuscript on their research within the next six months.

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